On the fast track? Phillips 66 is looking to ship volatile Bakken crude oil through SLO County by train, but opposition efforts are gaining steam



Though the draft environmental impact report (EIR) for the proposed rail spur extension at the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo—released on Nov. 27—is 708 pages long, one sentence has received the most attention.

On page 24, where it describes the oil source for proposed oil-carrying trains, the report states: “The most likely sources would be the Bakken field in North Dakota.”

Industry regulators and scientists say that oil extracted from the Bakken shale formation—a booming source of crude lying under the soil of North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba—is more flammable and volatile than conventional crude and can carry dangerous, corrosive chemicals as a result of the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) extraction process.

Though the draft EIR states that the various environmental impacts of the rail spur extension are mostly “less than significant” or able to be mitigated, one “significant and unavoidable impact” noted in the report is the possibility of an accidental oil spill.

“In the unlikely event of an oil spill along the UPRR [Union Pacific Railroad] mainline tracks, there would likely be no oil spill containment or cleanup equipment available, and it would likely take some time for emergency response teams to mobilize adequate spill response equipment,” according to the report.

“We can’t have a spill containment site every 20 miles from here to Canada; it’s not feasible,” said Murry Wilson, an environmental resource specialist with the San Luis Obispo County Department of Planning and Building.

Wilson said other companies already transport some crude oil via the Union Pacific Railroad in SLO County, but he didn’t know the origin point or exact amount of that oil.

Based upon “historical data,” the report pegs the likelihood of a “train accident leading to a release of oil on the UPRR mainline in SLO County” at once every 226 years.

On July 6, in the Québécois town of Lac-Mégantic, a 74-car freight train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed, erupting into a huge fireball of burning oil that killed 47 residents and leveled more than 40 buildings.

“Though we don’t know exactly where the oil will be coming from for this proposed project, the Bakken formation is a potential source,” Wilson said. “An oil spill is a bad thing no matter where the oil comes from.”

As recently as August, Phillips 66 declined to disclose the new source of the crude oil to be brought in by rail.

The oil company has requested a fast turnaround on the project and is funding both the EIR process and an external consultant to assist the county.

As proposed, the rail spur extension will include roughly 1.3 miles of new tracks—capable of accommodating an 80-car train for unloading off the mainline track. This would enable the refinery to take in a maximum of five trains (or 260,710 barrels) of crude oil per week. All oil currently comes into the refinery via pipeline, and local California crude oil fields supply the vast majority of the refinery’s intake.

Wilson, Phillips 66 Spokesman Rich Johnson, and the report all emphasized that the rail spur extension won’t affect the amount of material processed at the refinery, a level that’s capped by the county.

“Our plans for this project reflect our company’s commitment to operational excellence and safety while enhancing the competitiveness of the facility,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail to New Times. “Protecting our people, our environment, and our communities guides everything we do, and those values will be applied to this project as well.”

Johnson did not respond to questions about whether extra precautions will be taken due to the volatility of Bakken crude.

In what both the report and Wilson said is an unrelated project, Phillips 66 received county approval in March to increase throughput—crude oil coming in and refined oil coming out of the facility—by an additional 10 percent.

The report states the refinery’s throughput increase proposal was first submitted in 2008, and the rail spur extension proposal wasn’t submitted until two months after that increase was approved—thereby avoiding “piece-mealing” forbidden under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, disagreed with this line of reasoning.

“Obviously, they had this planned for some time,” he said. “Under CEQA, you have to include all reasonably foreseeable impacts, and they were absolutely silent on delivering Bakken oil via rail in the throughput EIR.”

After the Nov. 27 draft EIR explicitly named the Bakken formation as a potential oil source, the liberal-leaning “HopeDance” local community e-mail listserv was buzzing about concerns over the proposal to possibly ship volatile oil by rail to the Nipomo refinery.

“It appears that they are hoping to stay under the radar with this project. Let people in your networks know about this,” read an e-mail sent by Damien Luzzo—an environmentalist and fracking opponent based in Davis—and widely forwarded by HopeDance publisher Bob Banner.

Also opposed to the rail spur project was local environmental activist Eric Greening, who spoke out against it during the Dec. 5 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting.

“We do not want Bakken crude oil here in SLO County,” Christie said. “I think it’s a given that this rail spur proposal will be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, and then from there to the Coastal Commission.”

Wilson said the county is welcoming comments on the proposal, and will hold a public workshop at 6 p.m. at Mesa Middle School, 2555 Halcyon Road, Arroyo Grande, on Dec. 12.

Public responses to the draft EIR are due by Jan. 27, and Wilson said the county has tentatively scheduled a Planning Commission hearing for April 24.

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at

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